Elections

The Promise of Ron DeSantis

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis attends Trump campaign rally in Opa-Locka, Fla., November 2, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)
At the moment, DeSantis looks like our best bet in 2024. On the other hand, the media have plenty of time to shred him.

The combination of hysteria and hostility with which the media are treating Ron DeSantis ought to be instructive to anyone who imagined that the unprecedented animus flung at President Trump had much to do with his unique characteristics. Trump was unique in some ways, but the media’s reaction was the same as ever: Any successful conservative, and any prominent figure who says conservative things, must be treated as the most dire threat to the Republic. There will be no balanced discussion of DeSantis’s virtues and flaws in the media; instead, to the extent he looks like the future for conservatives and Republicans, he must be treated as Public Enemy No. 1. For the media, it’s Destroy DeSantis time. The situation will remain thus until the threat has been successfully neutralized. Very shortly, the press will start explaining why DeSantis Is Even Worse Than Trump.

And yet it’s exactly that hostility that has made DeSantis a national name. DeSantis is feasting on the media’s contempt for him. To conservatives, the failed and mendacious 60 Minutes attack piece amounted to DeSantis earning a Purple Heart. He took fire, and he survived. Not only that, he lobbed a few grenades into the enemy trenches.

He fights. The comparisons to Trump come easily, but DeSantis also brings to mind Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani, each of whom built a national profile that depended not only on policy successes but on combativeness with the press. (And all three men boast Italian heritage. Coincidence?) Giuliani and Christie both disintegrated, though, and that should give us reason to temper our enthusiasm for DeSantis’s prospects as a potential presidential nominee in 2024. The next presidential election is approximately 1,300 news cycles away. DeSantis should count on 1,300 days of nonstop bashing from the media. Perhaps he’ll emerge from this trial strong or perhaps the media will succeed in ruining him.

DeSantis possesses the dream resume for a Republican presidential candidate: middle-class youth, stardom on the Yale baseball team, Harvard Law degree, a Navy career that included a tour of duty in Iraq, successful stewardship of a large and diverse state, no Swamp stink on him. So far, he has proved to be far better at selling conservative ideas publicly than his presumed rivals Josh Hawley, Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, and Tom Cotton.

Yet to be a 2024 contender, DeSantis must first win reelection next year in Florida. Despite his national profile, a recent poll showed him tied with state Agricultural commissioner Nikki Fried, his likely Democratic challenger. (Another poll gave DeSantis a nine-point lead). DeSantis would presumably need to beat Fried, or whomever the Democrats put up, by a healthy margin to be well-positioned as a national candidate.

To call DeSantis a Trump epigone, suggesting he might even represent “competent Trumpism,” as one ally put it to the New York Times, or comparing his pugnacious style to the ultimately failed models of Christie or Giuliani, is to neglect a more intriguing comparison. Ronald Reagan was a proven, experienced governor of a large and diverse state. Reagan was known to be combative with the media, to reject their premises, and to command news conferences and debates. Unlike Trump, Reagan brought to his presidential campaign a knowledge of how to manage a large and unwieldy government.

There is a lot of well-justified concern on the right that the party has been irreparably fractured by recent events, but DeSantis would, like Reagan, be a powerfully uniting force between Mitt Romney-adjacent suburban voters who see the presidency as a question of managerial competence and Trump lovers who prize the more theatrical aspects of the job, especially the part that involves figuratively punching reporters in the nose. For better or for worse, it is now a core GOP value to despise the media. Any potential GOP presidential candidate will have to be prepared to serve as steward of the executive branch, commander in chief of the armed forces and No. 1 media critic. The many conservatives who questioned whether John McCain was too naïve about the press’s pre-2008 fondness for him, and whether Mitt Romney was simply too nice to win, can have no such reservations about DeSantis. So far, he’s simply better at smacking around the media than Rubio, Cruz, Hawley, and Cotton. Unlike Trump, he is able to lay out a lawyerly presentation of the simple facts while doing so. Moreover, the proud tradition of the GOP is to look outside the Beltway for potential presidents.

Our continuing frustration, as Republicans, is that we are so often cursed with standard-bearers who either fumble with words (both Bushes, Trump) or who speak conservatism as a foreign language (McCain, Romney). We believe we’d win the presidency most of the time (albeit maybe not in disaster years such as 2008) if we could always field a candidate who properly and vigorously and attractively articulated the conservative vision of everything. At the moment, DeSantis looks like our best bet. On the other hand, the media have plenty of time to shred him. And of course, should Donald Trump run again, neither DeSantis nor anyone else would stand much of a chance in the Republican primaries. It’s still Trump’s party, if he wants it to be.

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